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Intelligence is Irrelevant: An MIT Alum’s Advice to a Struggling Student

January 9th, 2012 · 42 comments

A Reddit Gem

A reader recently sent me a link to this fascinating Reddit thread. It’s titled:”I’m not as smart as I thought I was,” and it features a high school senior worried that his intellectual abilities are lacking.

Over 700 people wrote comments in response. One of the top comments was from an MIT graduate who had struggled with and then overcame similar feelings of inadequacy when he first arrived in Cambridge.

Below, I’ve reproduced key passages from his note (edited slightly), as I think he has something important to say — for both students and graduates — about the psychological complexity of the quest to become so good they can’t ignore you…

The people who fail to graduate from MIT, fail because they come in, encounter problems that are harder than anything they’ve had to do before, and not knowing how to look for help or how to go about wrestling those problems, burn out.

The students who are successful, by contrast, look at that challenge, wrestle with feelings of inadequacy and stupidity, and then begin to take steps hiking that mountain, knowing that bruised pride is a small price to pay for getting to see the view from the top. They ask for help, they acknowledge their inadequacies. They don’t blame their lack of intelligence, they blame their lack of motivation.

During my freshman year, I almost failed out of differential equations.  I was able to recover and go on to be very successful in my studies. When I was a senior, I would sit down with the freshmen in my dorm and show them the same things that had been shown to me, and I would watch them struggle with the same feelings, and overcome them. By the time I graduated MIT, I had become the person I looked up to when I first got in.

You feel like you are burnt out or that you are on the verge of burning out, but in reality you are on the verge of deciding whether or not you will burn out. It’s scary to acknowledge that it’s a decision because it puts the onus on you to to do something about it, but it’s empowering because it means there is something you can do about it.

So do it.

42 thoughts on “Intelligence is Irrelevant: An MIT Alum’s Advice to a Struggling Student

  1. Liza says:

    Good piece of advice. I feel I relate to the person who started the thread–in high school, I felt smothered because I didn’t think I was living up to my potential by feeling that certain studies weren’t getting to me easily. I’ve finished my first semester in college, and I’m better acquainted with the idea that sheer work has just as strong a weight as intelligence does in succeeding in school.

    Great way to start my day! 🙂

  2. Sabah Shams says:

    Very insightful article. 🙂

  3. Juan says:

    Why the misleading title?
    Intelligence IS important. I think that we can assume that all who made it into MIT are intelligent enough so the original author is speaking about intelligent people with other type of problems. If the problem was lack of intelligence or an anxiety disorder I don´t think finding a mentor (like he did with R) could help that much.
    Interesting article anyway.

  4. Lori says:

    My husband struggled all through HS. He was a year younger than the other kids in his grade. His brother flew through without struggling. They both got into Cornell. My husband already knew what it was to work hard to “get it” and ask for help. His younger, “smarter” brother, almost flunked out. Dave, asked by his parents to assist, dragged him to the TA’s office and “hatted” him on how to get help and study differently. They both made it through. I often counseled kids that I would rather have a kid who has to really work hard than one who does little, that it will serve them well in life.

  5. Jamie says:

    Another comment on the question mentions the concept of a fixed vs learning mindset. This, I believe, was from the work of Carol Dweck and is important. Reading about Dwecks work has been a turning point in understanding my own education, learning and self image. I highly recommend that anyone interested in intelligence or learning- at any level- look at her work.

  6. Sara Martin says:

    This knowledge, that success is a decision instead of a verdict handed down from above, is probably the most important lesson I’ve learned in life so far. Once I understood that, I could stop relying on my circumstances to indicate whether or not I was cut out to fulfill my ambitions. Circumstances aren’t the deciding factor. I am.

  7. Ashish says:

    That’s nice, but you could have changed my life by telling me this 25 years ago.

  8. I loved this article and have to say that exactly the same advice, with respect to “talent,” could be given to most writers.

    Look for example at this graph:

    The WRITERS who are successful, by contrast, look at that challenge, wrestle with feelings of inadequacy and stupidity, and then begin to take steps hiking that mountain, knowing that bruised pride is a small price to pay for getting to see the view from the top. They ask for help, they acknowledge their inadequacies. They don’t blame their lack of TALENT, they blame their lack of motivation.

    Really, success comes down to motivation, persistence and strategic work.

  9. Study Hacks says:
    I’ve finished my first semester in college, and I’m better acquainted with the idea that sheer work has just as strong a weight as intelligence does in succeeding in school.

    If anything, getting practice with this sheer volume of work required to do anything that is both new and hard (e.g., anything interesting) is a huge argument in favor of college.

    Intelligence IS important.

    If you want to be exact, the implied full title is “Intelligence is Irrelevant FOR DOING WELL AT MIT ONCE YOU HAVE ALREADY BEEN ACCEPTED TO MIT.” That is, it was not intelligence that made the difference between those who burned out and those who did not. But my title is more pithy…

    Another comment on the question mentions the concept of a fixed vs learning mindset. This, I believe, was from the work of Carol Dweck and is important.

    You’re absolutely right. The commenter’s experience is a great example of Dweck’s theories of mindset (which I’ve written about before).

    This knowledge, that success is a decision instead of a verdict handed down from above, is probably the most important lesson I’ve learned in life so far.

    I don’t completely agree. At MIT, for example, a student with an A in discrete math was more successful in mastering the material than a student with a B. Just because a verdict is handed down, it doesn’t mean that it’s not accurate.

    I loved this article and have to say that exactly the same advice, with respect to “talent,” could be given to most writers.

    Amen. Writing takes soooo much practice.

  10. Chris Khoo says:

    Sounds like Mueller & Dweck (1998) “Intelligence praise can undermine motivation and performance” is very appropriate to mention here here. I certainly had ego problems which went unchecked and eventually manifested during my high school years.

    Chris

  11. Ken says:

    I especially like this comment from an identical twin:

  12. yktula says:

    What is “intelligence”? I remember a comment Cal posted earlier, on another post that is very related to this topic: http://calnewport.com/blog/2011/12/02/is-talent-underrated-making-sense-of-a-recent-attack-on-practice/#comment-26387 (“be careful about labeling something as innate, it might be trained in ways you didn’t realize.”).

    For example, we know that working memory and “fluid intelligence” can be improved with dual n-back training, and people do get better at doing things through deliberate practice. Attributing scholastic struggle (or anything else) to some vaguely-defined quality (“intelligence”) is a pretty meaningless endeaver.

  13. Leena says:

    I really liked this post! As someone who definitely went through burnout, and has talked to many other students at MIT who also went through burnout (and occasionally, have questioned at random points in time whether I am burning out again) I have to say that to this: “They don’t blame their lack of intelligence, they blame their lack of motivation.” I wholeheartedly agree.

    MIT gets a whole lot better when you realize that 1) You are not the smartest person there 2) That is completely ok 3) Now you can work as hard as you can because you have just been given the opportunity to spend however many years in intellectual candyland. I have a lot of friends who left MIT for various reasons over the years, but I can’t think of a single one that, at the end of it all, blamed their lack of success on lack of intelligence.

    I feel like what I really took away from burning out and taking time off to work was that while this isn’t always true, a lot of times, when you want something, its going to be hard, there are going to be a lot of moments where you doubt yourself, hate yourself, or feel a sense of failure, but at the end of the day, intelligence could be measured more by how driven you are to be resilient, and how open you are to finding different ways to approach your problems. Its really easy to decide that some intrinsic quality is making you unsuccessful, and sometimes, there are definitely aspects that influence your success (learning disorders for example) but at the end of the day, at least for me, and all of my friends, it came down to how we chose to deal with the challenge we took on – who we decided to be if you will.

    Getting burned out or questioning whether this is the time to give up the first time around happens, and I think failure academically can happen for tons of reasons, but STAYING burned out is absolutely a choice.

    I think that when it really comes down to that psychological journey to find the drive to be really good, its paradoxical, but you have to push past caring about how good you feel about yourself sometimes, and just focus on getting really good at whatever you are doing, but not with respect to other people. What I mean when I say that is that when you are working on your skill at something, you can often measure how good the final product is, and you can pick a measure that doesn’t have to do with other people – ie, hey, I did a set of problems, and got the correct solutions for all of them, or hey, I wrote this paper, and it covers all of the information it was supposed to cover. When you start learning the piano, you don’t practice “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and then wallow in a pool of angst because you aren’t currently Rachmaninoff. Its just not relevant. You have to focus on doing really really good work, and just forget about the other people. I think that its really useful to accept that you aren’t the smartest, you aren’t going to necessarily always be the best, and decide you’re still just going to do a good job anyway and see where it gets you. I feel like you touch on this in other posts, but its just something thats so important. I think that making it about the actual work, and not about how other people see you is really the only way to ever push yourself through something thats actually hard, or is a major achievement. Its just never going to be as fun unless what you are doing inspires intrinsic motivation because you enjoy it. Not in the find your passion way, but in the way where we all enjoy getting really good at something, even if its making pasta sauce.

    I know this is a super long comment…maybe it should have been an email? Sorry about that…hopefully its useful at least.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Why did you edit the original post so heavily? I thought the message was much more powerful in its original form, although perhaps a bit lengthy.

    I also think you missed Sara Martin’s point. She’s just saying (I think) that a person can be successful despite her circumstances, or rather, regardless of her circumstances, which is true.

    And at least for MIT undergrad, although MIT does a decent job (in most classes) of giving students the grades they deserve, I think it is naive to say that a student with an A was definitely more successful in mastering the material than a student with a B. There are many reasons that one student might have a higher grade than another, and this kind of thinking– that a grade (or some other quantitative measure) can be an absolute determiner of success– is exactly what fuels intense stress and depression in many students at MIT.

  15. Sara Martin says:

    What I meant to emphasize in my earlier response is that a “verdict” is final. Like a measure of IQ — it implies a quantified condition we cannot outgrow.

    The personal realization I referred to, that a verdict isn’t as powerful as I’d believed when I was younger, is very similar to what the MIT graduate describes as the moment when students make the decision to climb the mountain, bruised pride and all.

    It’s the moment when you say, “Okay, I’m not as smart as I thought I was. But I’m going to climb the mountain anyway.”

  16. I like the post. It applies to a challenging new job as well.

  17. Hi Cal, Your other readers may enjoy reading today’s interview with Yale Law professor Amy Chua, the “Tiger Mom.” Chua thought she was not cut out to be a lawyer, but she worked incredibly hard, she became executive editor of the Harvard Law Review, and then she worked for a top law firm. She says she felt like a fraud when she worked at Cleary, and when the interviewer asks:

    “You didn’t like practice, but how did you feel about law school?”

    Chua responds (right on Cal Newport’s script):

    “Law school tore down my confidence. I hated being called on. It’s not a discipline that comes naturally to me. I did not click with law. I’m the hardest worker, but I could not retain the information.”

    With hard work, the self-doubting Amy Chua accomplished everything that every self-doubting law student thinks is impossible because he or she is just “not cut out to be a lawyer.”

    Here’s the link: http://thecareerist.typepad.com/thecareerist/2012/01/amy-chuas-career.html

  18. JC says:

    I think it’s also important to realize that if you really want to be awesome at something, given the proper perspective, determined practice is also the most fun way to go. As long as you’re determined to learn Fur Elise, you might as well do what it takes to get the quick parts down most efficiently — this is actually easiest! Analogously, I ask: did little Tony Hawk think about “determined practice?” I think he just was obsessed with the awesomeness of skating and wanted to be the best, and thereby “discovered” determined practice http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Hawk#Early_life
    In general, I feel like the negatives fall away when you’re in the zone and doing something: when the surf is good, I don’t care how cold the water is.

    It’s not applicable to everything, but I certainly agree with the sentiment of: “you will never be the best in the world at something you don’t think about in the shower.”

  19. Apel Mjausson says:

    Lori’s story about her husband and BIL, brings up an important point: The skill to ask for help and to take advantage of it when offered, is key to becoming a good learner. Isolating and assuming that you’re the only one who feels overwhelmed at times contribute to depression and burn-out. How, when, where, with what and why to ask for help are skills that can be taught early and reinforced throughout childhood. They’re taught through example by adults observed by the child, and through the way adults react to the child’s requests for help in everyday living situations.

  20. done says:

    Motivation is the critical component no doubt. I fell behind in school (credits), was indecisive about a major path, and overwhelmed myself with the feeling I was not building a skill set like my peers had. Now I’m a drop out. Burned out is an understatement. It seems like it will take 4 more years to get the college experience I desire, and that success has slipped away. Failure sucks-in its sting it draws even more hope and motivation from dwindling reserves. Cast from the mountain, I find myself bewildered in a range-and all the peaks are as shrouded and elusive as before.

  21. Martynas Kriunas says:

    So true.

  22. Terri says:

    I am an MIT alum, and I don’t know if it’s because of my Asian upbringing, but I never really sat around worrying about whether I was smart enough or capable enough. My freshman year, first semester, I took the advanced freshman physics class which really challenged me. It was not at all obvious if I could get an A in that class. I tried to read the text ahead of lecture and carefully review my notes after every class. I went to all my sections and asked questions. I worked really hard on my problem sets, got help at office hours, and set aside a lot of time to study for exams. This pattern of methodical, consistent studying became my system and I used it to such great success in my undergrad career that I never really had problems with any of my classes after that. It was just a matter of planning and consistent hard work especially at the beginning of the semester. I found that the harder you worked at the beginning, the easier it was. In particular, towards end of the semester, when the classes got really hectic, I managed to survive because I had tried to get ahead as much as possible during the beginning. For example, I would always get the book list for all my literature classes and read the first book before classes had even started.

  23. perseverance is definitely the key

  24. Anonymous says:

    harvard student blogs about her study habits: http://bit.ly/yBLbGV

    noted many mindsets and techniques that were similar to those espoused in your books. just wanted to share!

  25. Mark Kim says:

    If intelligence is “irrelevant,” why are the graduate students at MIT in mathematics overwhelmingly of East Asian descent?

    1. Saul Bergman says:

      This is an artifact of the migration in the top 1-2% of East Asians coming to the US. The vast majority if East Asians are…wait for it…average, just like every other race.

      Also, I may remind you of the industry of admissions fraud that comes from Asia. A lot of foreign East Asians pay agencies to fake entire applications.

    2. Saul Bergman says:

      Also, your statement is false:

      East Asians look to be no more thn 15% of MITgrad students. Hardly overwhelming.

      http://math.mit.edu/directory/graduate.php

  26. Adrian says:

    I think when someone is affected by a burn-out syndrome, his or her cognitive abilities can decrease, his or her potential or resources to solve problems are reduced, including the learning skills, memory, attention, and so on, but all these impairments disapear and the intellectual potential becomes to its real level when the causes the led to the burn-out syndrome no longer exists.

  27. Zulema Monaham says:

    Loved the quotes. They really make me think.

  28. Roejohn Remzo Tiolengco says:

    Thanks, I was enlightened.

  29. Hariprasad Kannan says:

    “bruised pride is a small price to pay for getting to see the view from the top”

    Such an insightful statement.

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